I am about to post my big but fragmented New Zealand Festival Writers and Readers Week diary but first two photo galleries. First up: Call Me Royal.
These photos were taken by Mark Beatty, one of the The National Library photographers, and they catch the spirit, warmth and generosity of the event so beautifully. It was an utter privilege to mc, to read poems with Jenny Bornholdt, Serie Barford, Tusiata Avia and our Poet Laureate extraordinaire, Selina Tusitala Marsh. I have put my intros at the end.
Grateful thanks to Peter Ireland, Chris Szekely and the National Library team. This was special.
All photographs courtesy of Mark Beatty, The Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library
The Poet Laureateship began under the administration and vision of Te Mata Estate with Bill Manhire the inaugural Laureate and has moved through to the six poets appointed by The National Library. Each Laureate is gifted a tokotoko, a walking stick, a personal fit, carved by Haumoana artist Jacob Scott. This to me is like the Laureate role – each recipient shapes the role to fit their own predilections and circumstances, from the Laureate blog, to poetry written, to a book published, to engagements and visibility within our reading and writing communities.
I jumped for joy on Poetry Day when I discovered Selina was our new Laureate; she is invigorating how the tokotoko is held, how the role is shaped. Of Samoan, Tuvaluan, English and French descent, she was the first Pacific Islander to graduate with a PhD in English at the University of Auckland – where she is now Associate Professor.
In her debut collection, Fast Talkin PI, Selina lays a circle of stones to acknowledge the embrace of women from which she writes, from which she throws the calabash for us to catch the seeds. I want to lay a circle of 6 stones for Selina.
The first stone is the gift of her poetry from her effervescent, award-winning debut with the title poem already a classic, and far ranging poetry that establishes movement on the page and charismatic movement in performance. To the second collection, Dark Sparring, written out of strength and lightness, out of her adoption of Muay Thai kickboxing and the death of her mother from cancer. The kickboxing is like a trope for poems that are graceful, startling, strong. This book lifts you out of your senses as she lifts grief out of her body and translates it into word music carrying us to the sun and moon and clouds. Selina’s latest book, Tightrope, longlisted for the book awards, travels in myriad directions, in ways that soothe, challenge and delight, that move us along fecund highways between sky and earth.
The second stone is the poetry mana Selina carries to young writers (I have witnessed this as I follow in her slipstream at Auckland schools) and to emerging writers – because she liberates the word. She stands, speaks and sings poetry, from self and wider communities and lineages, with such passion and drive the audience is compelled to read and write.
The third stone is Selina’s drive to bring Pasifika women poets to our attention – with a groundbreaking book in the making.
The fourth stone is the way she has carried poetry from our shores, in multiple translations, at myriad festivals, representing Tuvālu at the London Olympics Parnassus event, and as the 2016 Commonwealth Poet performing her commissioned poem UNITY for the Queen.
The fifth stone is the life of the poem in performance that Selina has made utterly her own. I am thinking of two mesmerising performances of Dark Sparring. At her launch, Selina was accompanied by Tim Page’s musical layerings, and she interrupted a kickboxing poem with a round or two of sparring in the room. It was breathtaking. On the second occasion, Selina read at the Ladies Litera-Tea without musical accompaniment and without a round or two of sparring. What struck me about this performance was the way silence was a significant part of the poetry palette. Again breathtaking. And of course there was the performance for the Queen that so many of us adored on the internet.
The sixth stone is the circle itself, the poetry connections and friendships, the poetry whanau that links us readers and writers that Selina tends with aroha and prodigious energy. Let us offer a warm to welcome dear friend and poet, Poet Laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh.
The second half
Jenny, Serie, Tusiata, me, Selina
Jenny Bornholdt, a much honoured poet, anthologist and children’s author, is a former Te Mata Estate NZ Poet Laureate. VUP has paid luminous tribute to her poetry in her recent Collected Poems. The book showcases Jenny’s intricate movements in the world – close at hand and roaming wider, and on the page itself, with large themes such as love, loss, illness and family, and smaller attentions such as a cotton shirt, a tea towel or a blanket, the large animating the small, and vice versa. You might get a conversational tone, with images unfolding like origami, surprising turns, linguistic agility and ample room for pause. You will always get a necessary heart beat, because Jenny’s poetry refreshes our relations with a living world, both complicated and vital. When I had to pick my ten favourite NZ Poetry books for a newspaper once, I picked Jen’s The Rocky Shore, but I could have added Summer or Mrs Winter’s Jump or These Days.
Tusiata Avia, of Samoan lineage, a poet, performer and children’s author, currently living in Christchurch, is a significant presence, a poetry beacon say, for emerging Pasifika poets. She has carried that beacon on her overseas travels. Tusiata originally staged her debut collection, Wild Dogs under My Skirt, as a one-woman show – but we can now see this must-read book performed at the festival by a cast of six. I went to the goosebump launch of her latest collection, Fale Aitu / Spirit House, and like slow release food resides in your blood, this became my favourite book of 2016. The book releases skeletons, darkness and pain, yet in doing so, the roots of being daughter, mother, poet are tended with such animation, such love, such a willingness to be open, self reflective, world reflective, these poems, this book, matters so very very much.
Serie Barford is a West Auckland performance poet of Samoan and European descent with four published collections. Her poetry, both political and deeply personal, is rich in evocation. You can absorb her poems through senses as you bite into flavour, catch the lull and lift of melody, smell the poem’s very essence. You get to travel with heart and with challenges laid down. Her most recent book, Entangled Islands, with both prose and poetry, emerges from a tangle of family, motherhood, partnership, colonisation, history, communities, migration, childhood memories, culture and love, most importantly love. Connections are nourished: between words, things, people, places, events. Disconnections are acknowledged. As with Jenny’s poetry, the essential undercurrent, the fuel in the pen, is love.